Illustration by Amy Chen
When I first made a Tinder account, I had a number of preconceived notions of what the experience would be like. I expected the app to be somewhere between steamy and seamy: midnight trysts, unsolicited dick pics, dirty talk, solicited dick pics—who knew what depravities men were capable of? As it turns out, Tinder mostly consists of dull conversations with mildly attractive people, like a series of Facebook chats with acquaintances you’ve been meaning to unfriend. But, as the kids say these days, the thirst was real, so I kept on using Tinder. The routine of swiping and typing had become a habit, something to do while waiting in line or killing time before class.
That probably explains why I was so easy to catfish.
For those of you with better things to do than consume televised trash, catfishing is a term from the MTV reality show Catfish. The show features a bro–y host and his hilariously superfluous sidekick investigating various online romances, relying on sophisticated technology, like Google. Inevitably, they discover that the person claiming to be an international model in Los Angeles is actually a store clerk in Des Moines. Usually somebody cries. It’s dumb, voyeuristic and so much fun.
Obviously I’m a fan of the show, so I knew catfishing was a thing that happened. But I put it in the same category as child beauty pageants, millionaire matchmaking and enjoying the Jersey Shore: theoretically possible, but almost totally confined to the world of reality TV.
So when a photo of a handsome, immaculately muscled man popped up on my phone, I took it at face value. Beautiful people exist, and sometimes they come to Philadelphia. When we matched, I took it as a sign that I had accumulated some very good karma. We got to chatting, and I believed I’d hit the Tinder jackpot. He went to Penn, could hold a conversation and was generous with compliments. He maybe wanted to meet up that night.
The only thing that seemed amiss was that I couldn’t find him on Facebook. Facebook stalking constitues a signifcant Tinder's soul. Since profiles are made from your Facebook account, it doesn’t exactly take Sherlock Holmes to find somebody. Still, some people have uber legit privacy settings. Plus, he was hot and interested in me. I kept chatting.
I also kept looking for him online. But all the usual methods that an avid Tinder–er develops were failing me. Finally, I turned to the last refuge of the Facebook–stalking scoundrel: reverse Google Image search.
One by one, I dragged the images from his profile into Google’s interface. And, one by one, I saw that each of them was a promotional photo of a German porn star.
My first thought: Wow, it’s so crazy that a porn star goes to Penn!
My second thought: I am the stupidest person who's ever lived.
In the world of catfishing, this offense was pretty minor. I didn’t start a months–long emotional affair, give this guy money or reveal the battle plans of the Syrian rebels. But the low stakes made it even more bewildering. One of my fellow students had taken the time to find six clothed pictures of a particular porn star, upload them to a private folder on Facebook and use them to get Tinder matches.
Why? Was he trying to use a few lies on Tinder to persuade someone to have sex with him in person? Was it just a game, an effort to see how far he could go and what reactions he could get? Did he just like the feeling of being wanted?
Aren’t those things that I use Tinder for, too?
Flirting and dating have always involved lies. It’s pretty damn hard to open yourself up to another person, let alone a stranger. We sand off some of the rough edges and add in a few harmless embellishments. We’re all trying to get something out of other people when we venture into the dating scene, whether that’s at Smokes' or online. In this case, someone had just taken that game and gone pro.
Which is all well and good, except it rules out the possibility of making a real human connection. If we make dating—even online dating—an experience where anything goes in the pursuit of personal pleasure, then it’s easy to forget that the person in the profile is a human being, with human wants, needs and fears. And that just won’t do, because acknowledging other people’s humanity is the only way this whole romance thing is ever going to work.
In that spirit, I decided to ask my catfisher what he was trying to do, and why. He never responded. But a few hours later, when the night was done and I found myself alone in my room, I reached for my phone, opened up Tinder and started swiping.